Ezra 4:5 brings the reader up to the point at which the temple is rebuilt in the second year of the reign of Darius (cf. 4:24). However, verse 6 moves thirty-five years after the temple rebuilding to the reign of Xerxes (cf. Brown 2005a: 39-40). Thus verses 6-23 recount the opposition that the Jews continued to face after the temple. The text brings the reader into the reign of Artaxerxes. In verse 24, the narrative reverts to the time of Darius’s second year and the finishing of the temple’s construction.
Older commentators, like Matthew Henry, identified Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes in Ezra 4:6, 7 with Cambyses (Henry 1991: 618; cf. Josephus, Ant. 11.2.1-2). But there is no evidence that אחשׁורושׁ or ארתחשׁשׂתא refer to Cambyses while these are the Aramaic names for Xerxes and Artaxerxes (Brown 2005b: 183-87; cf. Williamson 1985: 57).
Steinmann agrees with other modern commentators that chapter 4 does not present a chronological account, and he offers a proposal for why the chronology is disrupted. He holds that the entire Aramaic section from 4:8 to 6:18 is a document prepared by Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and others, possibly at the behest of Nehemiah, to persuade Artaxerxes to allow for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. This document was written so that the most recent events were recorded first and then moves backward in time. Though not written by Jews (cf. 5:5, which refers to “their God” and note the fact that the name Yhwh does not appear in the Aramaic section), it was written to favor their cause (Steinmann 2010: 201-2). In this document the entire city of Jerusalem is understood to be the house of God; thus the whole city, not just the temple proper ought to be rebuilt (Steinmann 2010: 248).
In response, it is not clear that this section forms an argument for the rebuilding of the walls. The verses relating to wall building focus on opposition, and there is a significant difference between rebuilding a temple and rebuilding city walls (Williamson 1985: 59; cf. Fensham 1982: 71). Most significantly, verse 24 appears to be a “repetitive resumption.” That is, words from 4:5 are repeated in 4:24 to bracket the intervening verses (Williamson 1996: 45; cf. Kidner 1979: 59; McConville 1985: 25). Since the resumption connects to text that precedes the Aramaic section, Steinmann’s theory that 4:8-6:18 is self-contained is not possible.
Ezra looked ahead at this point to the opposition to rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls for multiple reasons. First, this digression highlights the depth of opposition that the Jews faced. Lest anyone wonder if the Jewish leaders simply brought opposition upon themselves for spurning an offer of help, this digression demonstrates the depth of opposition. It lasted long after the temple was rebuilt. It reveals that these adversaries are going to relentlessly oppose the Jews at every turn. The Jewish leadership was right to avoid the trap of their adversaries’ offer (cf. Williamson 1985: 57; McConville 1985: 26).
On a literary level, this digression delays the resolution of the problem of halted temple construction. This narrative delay combined with the greater insight the digression gives to the depth of opposition only heightens the reader’s sense of the significance of Israel’s triumph in rebuilding the temple (Kidner 1979: 53-54; Brown 2005b: 40-41).
Finally, Ezra lived through the period being recounted in this section of the book (he and those he led back to Jerusalem may be referred to in 4:12; Kidner 1979: 58; Levering 2007: 65, n. 4; cf. Williamson 1985: 63). If Ezra was written around the time of the conflict over the rebuilding of the walls (possibly writing before Nehemiah returned), then linking the current opposition to the wall-building with the failed opposition to the temple-building would encourage his original readers (cf. Brown 2005b: 41).
First Letter of Opposition
Ezra first recorded an unspecified accusation from the reign of Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes; the king who added Esther to his harem). The letter was written “in the beginning of his reign,” which may indicate that it was written in 486 BC, the partial year prior to his first full year of reigning (Williamson 1985: 60). Williamson notes that “just prior to Xerxes’ accession Egypt rebelled against her Persian overlord, obliging Xerxes to pass through Palestine during 485 B.C.” (Williamson 1985: 60). This unrest lasted until 483 BC (Steinmann 2010: 224). The unrest in this region gave the adversaries of the Jews an opportunity to lodge an accusation against the Judeans and Jerusalemites.
Second Letter of Opposition
Verse 7 documents letter of opposition, written in the days of Artaxerxes by Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and others. Since the following verse lists different authors, verse 7 is probably refers to a distinct letter (Kidner 1979: 57; Williamson 1985: 61; McConville 1985: 27). The content of the letter is not specified.
The statement, “The letter was written in Aramaic and translated,” is difficult. Williamson suggests that it was probably translated into Hebrew (the primary language of the author of Ezra). But it was written with an Aramaic script, which was notable at the time since it was not yet common (Williamson 1985: 61; cf. Breneman 1993: 102).
Third Letter of Opposition
This third letter was written in Aramaic, and Ezra switched to Aramaic at this point to give the letter in its original language. Ezra first provides the senders’ designation of themselves. They identify themselves as deportees who were settled by the Assyrians in Israel. They were settled in the land at a later date from those mentioned in 2 Kings 17 or Ezra 4:2. They also claim a Persian heritage. Ashurbanipal (Osnappar) did conquer Elam and Susa in 642-643 BC (Williamson 1985: 62). These deportees were from that event. The fact that they were from Persia could incline Artaxerxes to credit their report.
Steinmann notes that many translations in 4:9 translate “the judges, the governors, the officials.” He argues against combining titles and ethnic designations: “Instead all the entries in this list ought to be understood as ethnic designations, as in the KJV and 2 Esdras 4:9. The Dinaites may be people from the city Dîn-šarru, near Susa, who were captured and brought to Ashurbanipal in Ashur and then probably resettled in yet other places. The origin of the Apharsathcites is unknown. The Tarpelites may be inhabitants of Tripoli in Syria” (Steinmann 2010: 238).
They accused Jews who had come from Artaxerxes of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem because they planned to rebel against Persia. This could be an accusation directed at Ezra and the those he led back to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:1-26; Kidner 1979: 58; Levering 2007: 65, n. 4; cf. Williamson 1985: 63), though the statement is not specific enough to be certain of anything other than that this predates Nehemiah (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 22).
The accusers suggested that a search of records would demonstrate that Jerusalem was destroyed because it had stirred up revolts and refused to pay tribute. This is a reference to pre-exilic Jerusalem. Toward the end of the Southern Kingdom, Judean kings did at times try to shake off their vassalage. Notably, Jeremiah warned the Judeans against rebelling in this way (Jer. 27-28). Their disobedience now brought about further difficulties.
This argument, however, is weak. Jerusalem was no longer the capital of an independent nation that was seeking to maintain its independence. The fact that the rebuilt Jerusalem never did rebel against Persia demonstrates the emptiness of the claim (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 23).
However, in the first part of Artaxerxes reign, the Egyptians rebelled (461 BC). The Persian general who defeated the Egyptians then rebelled against Artaxerxes in 449 BC. During this same time, the Persians were fighting the Greeks (Levering 2007: 66; Steinmann 2010: 246-47). Since Jerusalem was in proximity to these rebellions, the accusations resonated with Artaxerxes. He did not wish to deal with another rebellion, and the Persian empire at this time could not afford a reduction in revenue that would come if a portion of the empire broke away (McConville 1985: 28).
Though the accusation was weak on the merits, it was skillfully crafted to target areas that concerned Artaxerxes. Finding in the historical record that pre-exilic Jerusalem did rebel against its overlords, and recognizing that these overlords (the “mighty kings”) received financial benefit from a subdued Jerusalem, Artaxerxes ordered the wall building in Jerusalem to cease (Williamson 1985: 64; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 23).
Artaxerxes commanded that Rehum, Shimshai, and the others who wrote him “not be slack” in putting an end to the wall-building. They certainly had no desire to “be slack.” Indeed, they used force to make the Jews stop their building. They may have even damaged what had already been built (cf. Neh. 1:3; Steinmann 2010: 248).
The “then” that begins verse 24 does not indicate that the work on the temple ceased subsequent to Artaxerxes’ decree since Darius clearly ruled before Artaxerxes. Verse 24 resumes the narrative line left off in verse 5 (Fensham 1982: 77).
Yamauchi observes that in the first two years of Darius’s reign he had to deal with rebellion. But once the rebellion was put down, he was willing for the temple to be rebuilt (Yamauchi 1988: 634).